The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 8, No. 1

Dear Abhi

by Clark Blaise

Dear Abhi
I watched him this morning juicing a grapefruit, guava, blood orange, mango, plums, and grapes and pouring the elixir into a giant glass pitcher. Beads of condensation rolled down the sides, like an ad for California freshness. Chhoto kaku, my late father’s youngest brother, is vegetarian; the warring juices are the equivalent of eggs and bacon, buttered toast and coffee. He will take tea and toast, but never coffee, which is known to inflame the passions. Life, or the vagaries of the Calcutta marriage market, did not bless him with a wife. Arousal, he believed, would be wasted on him, and he has taken traditional measures against it.
           Ten years ago this was all farmland, but for the big house and the shingled cottage behind it. No lights spill from the cottage, yet Chhoto kaku makes his way across the rocks and cacti to her door. Don’t go, I breathe, but the door opens. Devorah was alone last night. Usually she comes out around eight o’clock with a mug of coffee and a cigarette, sometimes joined by one of her stay-overs. On our first visit she produced a tray of wild boar sausage that a friend had slaughtered, spiced, cooked, and cased, after shooting.
           Her hair changes color. I’ve seen it green and purple. Today, there are no Mercedeses or motorcycles in the yard; she was alone last night. She wears blue jeans and blue work shirts, and she smells richly resinous, reminding me of mangoes. Her normal hair is loose and graying.
           She told me the day after we moved in, “Your uncle is a hoot.” She calls me Abby, my uncle, Bushy. His name is Kishore Bhushan Ganguly. We call her Devvie, which in our language approximates the word for goddess. “He looked at my paintings and he said, ‘You have the eyes of god.’ Isn’t that the sweetest thing?” I count myself a man of science, so I must rely on microscopes and telescopes and x-rays to glimpse the world beyond. “He said I see the full range of existence. He said, ‘I tremble before you.’ Isn’t that beautiful?”
           When I reported her assessment, Uncle said, “I think she is an advanced soul.” I asked how he knew. “She offered me a plate of cold meats. I told her meats inflame the passions.” Youngest Uncle is a Brahmin of the old school. “So, she’s giving up meats, is that it?” I asked. He said, “I believe so. She said, ‘Maybe that is my problem.’”
           Six months he’s been with me, my cherished Youngest Uncle, the bachelor who put me and two cousins through college, married off my sisters and cousins with handsome dowries, and set up their husbands, the scoundrels, in business. He delayed and finally abandoned all hopes of marriage for himself.
           When he was an engineer rising through the civil service, then in industry, there’d been the hope of marriage to a neighbor’s daughter—beautiful, smart, good family from the right caste and even subcaste. Her father had proposed it and even Oldest Uncle, who approved or vetoed all marriages in the family, declared himself, for once, unopposed. Preparations were started, horoscopes exchanged, a wedding house rented. Her name was Nirmala.
           I came home from school one day in my short pants, looking for a servant to make me a glass of fresh lime soda and finding, unimaginably, no one in the kitchen. The servants were all clustered in Oldest Auntie’s room, joining in the loud lamenting of other pishis and older girl-cousins. I squeezed my own limes, then stood on a chair, and from the kitchen across a hallway open to the skies I had a good view into Youngest Uncle’s room. He was in tears. He had been betrayed. In those years he was a handsome man in his middle thirties, about my age now, with long, lustrous hair and a thin, clipped moustache. Older Uncle had voided the engagement.
           Something unsavory in Nirmala’s background had been detected. I heard the word “mishap.” Perhaps our family had given her the once-over and found her a little dull, flat chested, or older than advertised, or with a lesser dowry. It could have meant a misalignment in the stars, a rumor of non-virginity, or suspicion of feeblemindedness somewhere in her family. Or Nirmala might have caught a glimpse of her intended husband and found him too old, too lacking in sex appeal. Every family can relate a similar tale. A promising proposal not taken to its completion is an early sign of the world’s duplicity. My parents, who married for love and never heard the end of it, did not call it duplicity. They called it not striking while the iron is hot, an image in English I always had difficulty picturing.
           In time “Nirmala” stood as a kind of symbol of treacherous beauty. In this case, the rumors bore out. She had a boy on the side, from an unsuitable community. They made a love-match, disgracing the name of her good family and rendering her younger sisters unmarriageable to suitable boys. They had two boys before she was eighteen. The sisters scattered to Canada and Australia and had to marry white men. A few years later, Nirmala divorced, and once, I’m told (I had already left for California , she showed up at Youngest Uncle’s door, offering her body, begging for money. Proof, as my mother would say, that whatever god decides is for the best. God wished that Youngest Uncle would become middle-aged in the service of lesser-employed brothers and their extended families, and that he not spend his sizeable income on a strange woman when it could be squandered on his family instead.
           You will see from this I am talking of the not-so-long-ago Calcutta, and surmise that I am living in Silicon Valley—or more properly, was living until a few months ago—with my wife, Sonali, and our sons, Vikram and Pramod, and that my uncle is with us. You would be half-right. My wife kicked me out six months ago. Not so long in calendar days, but in psychological time, eons.
           My Christmas bonus eighteen months ago was $250,000. In Indian terms, two and half lakhs of dollars; multiply by forty, a low bank rate, and you come up with ten million rupees: one crore. My father, a middle-class clerk, never made more than two thousand rupees a month, and that was only toward the end of his life when the rupee had started to melt. What does it do to a Ballygunge boy, a St. Xavier’s boy, to be confronted in half a lifetime with such inflation of expectation, such expansion of the stage upon which we strut and fret? Sonali planned to use the bonus to start a preschool. She was born in California and rarely visits Calcutta, which depresses her. Her parents, retired doctors who were born on the same street as I, live in San Diego.
           There are three dozen Indian families in our immediate circle of friends, all of them with children, all of whom share a suspicion that their children’s American educational experiences will not replicate the hunger for knowledge and rejection of mediocrity that we knew in less hospitable Indian schools. They would therefore pay anything to replicate some of that nostalgic anxiety, but not the deprivation. She could start a school. Sonali is a fine Montessori teacher. Many of the wives of our friends are teachers.  Many of my friends would volunteer to tutor or teach a class. We would have a computer-literate school to do Sunnyvale proud. She spoke to me nightly of dangerous and deprived East Palo Alto, where needs are great and the rents are cheap.
           If I stay in this country we would have to do it, or something like it. It is a way of recycling good fortune and being part of this model community I’ve been elected to because of the responsible way I conduct my life. You name it—family values, religious observation, savings, education, voting, tax paying, PTA, soccer coaching, nature hiking, school boards, mowing my lawn, keeping a garden, contributing to charities—I’ve done it. And in the office: designing, programming, helping the export market, and developing patents—I’ve done that, too. America is a demonstrably better place for my presence. My undistinguished house, bought for cash on a downside at a mere $675,000, quadrupled in value in the past five years—or more precisely, four of the past five years. It is inconceivable that anything I do would not be a credit to my national origin, my present country, and my religious creed.
           When something is missing it’s not exactly easy to place it. I have given this some thought—I think it is called “evidence of things unseen.” Despite external signs of satisfaction, good health, a challenging job, the love and support of family and friends, no depressions or mood swings, no bad habits, I would not call myself happy. I am well adjusted. We are all extremely well adjusted. I believe my situation is not uncommon among successful immigrants of my age and background.

I went alone to Calcutta for two weeks, just after the bonus. Sonali didn’t go. She took the boys and two of their school friends skiing in Tahoe. She has won medals for her skiing. I am grateful for these comforts and luxuries but had been feeling unworthy. It was Youngest Uncle who had paid for the rigorous Calcutta schools and then for St. Xavier’s, and that preparation got me the scholarships to IIT and later to Berkeley, but I lacked a graceful way of thanking him. The bonus check was in my wallet. I would be in Calcutta with a crore of rupees in my pocket. I, Abhishek Ganguly of Ballygunge.
           Chhoto kaku is now sixty-seven, ten years retired from his post of chemical engineer. The provident funds he’d contributed to for forty years are secure. One need not feel financial concern for Youngest Uncle, at least in a rupee zone.  He has no legal dependents. Everyone into the remotest hinterland of consanguinity has been married. He was living with his two widowed sisters-in-law and their two daughters plus husbands and children in our old Calcutta house. The rent had not been substantially raised since Partition, when we arrived from what was then East Bengal and soon to become East Pakistan, then Bangladesh. Chhoto kaku was a boy of eleven. I believe the rent was about fifteen dollars a month, which was reflected in the broken amenities. A man on a bicycle collected the rent on the first of every month. They said he was the landlord’s nephew, but the nephew was a frail gentleman of seventy years.
           It is strange how one adjusts to the street noise and insects, the power cuts, the Indian-style bathroom, the dust and noise, and the single tube of fluorescent light in the living room which casts all nighttime conversations into a harsh pallor and reduces the interior world to an ashen palette of grays and blues. Only for a minute or two did I register Sunnyvale, the mountains, the flowers and garden, the cool breeze, the paintings and rugs and comfortable furniture. And my god, the appliances: our own tandoori oven and a convection oven, the instant hot-water spout, ice water in the refrigerator door, the tiles imported from Portugal for the floor and countertops. Sonali is an inspired renovator. You would think it was us, the Gangulys of Sunnyvale, who were the long-established and landowning aristocracy and not my uncle, who lived in his single room in that dingy house for longer than I’ve been on earth.

Youngest Uncle is a small man, moustached, the lustrous long hair nearly gone, fair as we Bengalis go, blessed with good health and a deep voice much admired for singing and for prayer services. He could have acted, or sung professionally. There was talk of sending him to Cambridge in those heady post-Independence years when England was offering scholarships to identify the likely leaders of its newly liberated possessions. Many of his classmates went, stayed on, and married English girls. He remained in India, citing the needs of his nieces and nephews and aged parents.
           The tragedy of his life, if the word is applicable, is having been the last born in the family. He could not marry before his older siblings, and they needed his unfettered income to secure their matches. And if he married for his own pleasure, the motive would have appeared lascivious. This, he would never do. My father, that striker of, or with, hot irons, had been the only family member to counsel personal happiness over ancestral duty. He called his sisters and other brothers bloodsuckers. When my parents married just after Independence under the spell of Gandhian idealism, they almost regretted the accident that made their brave and impulsive marriage also appear suitable as to caste and subcaste. My father would have married a sudra, he said; my mother, a Christian, Parsi, Sikh, or maybe even a Muslim, under proper conditions.
           I am always extravagant with gifts for Youngest Uncle. He has all the high-tech goodies my company makes: an e-mail account and a lightning-fast modem, though he never uses it, a cell phone, a scanner, a laser printer, copier, color television, various tape recorders and stereos. The room could not accommodate him, electronically speaking, with its single burdened outlet. But the gifts were still in their boxes, carefully dusted, waiting to be given to various grandnephews still in elementary school. He keeps only the Walkman, on which he plays classic devotional ragas. He’s making his spiritual retreat to Varanasi electronically.
           I touched his feet in the traditional pronam. He touched my shoulder, partially to deflect my gesture, partially to acknowledge it. It is a touch I miss in the States, never giving it and never expecting to receive it. It is a sign that I am home and understood.
           “So, Chhoto kaku, what’s new?” I asked, the invitation for Youngest Uncle to speak about the relatives, the dozens-swollen-to-hundreds of Gangulys who now live in every part of India and, increasingly, the world.
           “In Calcutta, nothing is ever new,” he said. “In interest of saving money, Rina and her husband, Gautam, are here—” Rina is the youngest daughter of his next-older sister. Thanks to Youngest Uncle’s dowry, Rina got married during the year and brought Gautam to live in her house, an unusual occurrence, although nothing is as it was in India, even in polite, conservative, what used to be called bhadralok, Bengali society.
           “Where do they stay, Uncle?”
           “In this room.”
           There were no spare rooms. It was a small house.
           “They are waiting for me to die. They expect me to move in with Sukhla-pishi.”
           That would be his oldest sister-in-law, the one we call Front Room Auntie for her position at the window that overlooks the street. She is over eighty. Nothing happens on Rash Behari Avenue that she doesn’t know. The rumor, deriving from those first post-Partition years, is she had driven Anil-kaku, her young husband, my oldest uncle, mad. He died of something suspicious, which was officially a burst appendix. Something burst, that is true. Disappointment, rage, failure of his schemes, who can say? It is Calcutta. He was a civil engineer and had been offered a position outside of Ballygunge in a different part of the city, but rather than leave the house and neighborhood, Sukhla-pishi had taken to her bed in order to die. Anil-kaku turned down the job, and she climbed out of bed and took her seat at the windowsill. All of that happened before I was born. There had been no children—they were then in their middle twenties—so she became the first of Youngest Uncle’s lifelong obligations.
           “This is your house, Uncle,” I said. “Don’t be giving up your rights.” As if he hadn’t already surrendered everything.
           “Rights were given long ago. Her mother holds the lease.”
           I should say a few words about my cousin-sister Rina. She is most unfortunate to look at, or to be around. I was astonished that she’d found any boy to marry, thinking anyone so foolish would be like her, a flawed appendage to a decent family.  We’d been most pleasantly wrong. Gautam was handsome, which goes a long way in our society, a dashing, athletic flight steward with one of the new private airlines that fly between Calcutta and the interior of eastern India. We understood he was in management training. Part of the pre-marriage negotiation was that he was given the best room in the house—which would allow him to pocket his housing allowance from the airline while subletting the company flat—as well as his own car, computer, television, stereo, printer, and tape recorder. He’d scouted the room in advance, since his demands included brand names and serial numbers.
           “I cannot say more, they are listening,” said my uncle.
           It was then that I noticed the new furnishings in the room, and a calendar on the wall from Gautam’s employer. This wasn’t Youngest Uncle’s room anymore, though he’d lived in it for over fifty years. He’d sobbed over Nirmala on that bed. The move to the sunny, dusty, noisy front room, rolling a thin mattress on Sukhla-pishi’s floor, had already been made. Next would be Gautam’s selling on the black market of all the carefully boxed, unopened electronics I’d smuggled in.
           “Let us go for tea,” I suggested, putting my hand on his arm, noting its tremble and sponginess. I kept an overseas membership in the Tollygunge Club for moments like this, prying favorite relatives away from family scrutiny, letting them drink Scotch or a beer free of disapproval, but he wouldn’t budge.
           “They won’t permit it,” he said. “I’ve been told not to leave the house.”
           “They? Who’s they?”          
           “The boy, the girl. Her.”
           “Rina? You know Rina, Uncle, she’s—” I wanted to say “flawed.” On past visits I’d contemplated taking her out to the Tolly for a stiff gin just to see if there was a different Rina, waiting to be released. “—Harmless.”
           “Her mother,” he whispered. “And the boy.”
           I heard precipitous noises outside the door. “Babu?” came my aunt’s query, “what is going on in my daughter’s room?”
           “We are talking, pishi,” I said. “We’ll be just out.”
           “Rina doesn’t want you in there. She will be taking her bath.”
           The shower arrangement was in Uncle’s room. His books, the only ones in the house, lined the walls, but Rina’s saris and Gautam’s suits filled the cupboard. It was the darkest, coolest, quietest, largest, and only fully serviced room in the house. Not for the first time did it occur to me that poverty corrupts everyone in India, just as wealth does the same in America. Nor did family life—so often evoked as the glue of Indian society, evidence of superiority over Western selfishness and rampant individualism—escape its collateral accounting as the source of all horrors. I suggested we drop in at the Tolly for a whiskey or two.
           “I cannot leave the house,” he said. “I am being watched. I will be reported.”
           “Watched for what?”
           “Gautam says that I have cheated on my taxes. The CBI is watching me twenty-four hours a day from their cars and from across the street. I must turn over everything to him to clear my name.”
           “Kaku! You are the most honest man I have ever met.”
           “No man leads a blameless life.”
           “Gautam’s a scoundrel. When he’s finished draining your accounts, he’ll throw you in the gutter.”
           “They are watching you too, Abhi, for all the gifts you have given. Gautam says you have defrauded the country. We are worse than agents of the Foreign Hand.  He has put you on record, too.”
           All those serial numbers, of course—and I had thought he was merely a thief. Every time I have given serious thought to returning to India for retirement or even earlier, perhaps to give my children more direction and save them from the insipidness of an American life, I am brought face to face with villainies, hypocrisies, that leave me speechless. Elevator operators collecting fares. Clerks demanding bribes, not to forgive charges, but to accept payments and stamp paid on a receipt. Rina and Gautam follow a pattern. I don’t want to die in America, but India makes it so hard, even for its successful runaways.
           And so the idea came to me that this house in which I’d spent the best years of my childhood, the house that the extended Ganguly clan of East Bengal had been renting for over fifty years, had to be available for the right price if I could track down the owner in the three days remaining on my visit. It was one of the last remaining single-family, one-story bungalows on a wide, maidan-split boulevard lined with expensive apartment blocks. I, Abhishek Ganguly, would become owner of a house on Rash Behari Avenue Ballygunge, paid for from the check in my pocket, and my first order of business would be to expel those slimy schemers, Gautam and Rina and her mother, and any other relative who stood in the way. Front Room-pishi could stay.
           Perhaps I oversold the charms of California. I certainly oversold the enthusiasm my dear wife would feel for hosting an uncle she’d never met. But Rina and Gautam would not leave voluntarily. Auntie would cause a fight. There’d be cursing, wailing, threats, denunciations. Nothing a few well-distributed gifts could not settle, I said. Come back with me for six months of good food and sunshine, no CBI surveillance, and you can return to a lean house and your own room, dear Youngest Uncle.
           Bicycle-nephew was more than happy to trade a monthly eight hundred rupees for ten million, cash. And with India being a land of miracles and immediate transformation as well as timeless inertia, I returned to California feeling like a god in the company of my liberated Chhoto kaku, owner—zamindar if you will, like my ancestors in pre-Partition East Bengal—of property, preserver of virtue, and expeller of evil.

It is America, contrary to received opinion, that resists cataclysmic self-reinvention. In my two-week absence, my dear wife had engaged an architect to transform a boarded-over, five-shop strip mall in East Palo Alto into the New Athens Academy, the Agora of Learning. Where weeds pushed through the broken slabs of concrete, there would be fountains and elaborate gardens. Each class would plant flowers and vegetables in February and harvest in May. Classes would circulate through the plots. I could picture toga-clad teachers. New Athens would incorporate the best of East and West, Tagore’s Shantiniketan and Montessori’s Rome, Confucius and Dewey, sports and science, classics and computers, all fueled by Silicon Valley resources. She’d started enrolling children for two years hence.
           And then I had to inform her—that outpost of Vesuvius—that my one-crore bonus check now rested in the account of one Atulya Ghosh, the very cool, twenty-year-old grandson of Bicycle Ghosh, nephew of old Landlord Ghosh, the late owner.
           One of the Ghoshes, it might have been Atulya’s grandfather, had been the rumored lover of a pishi of mine who’d been forced to leave the house in disgrace. She killed herself, in fact. Young Ray-Bans Ghosh was a Toronto-based greaser, decked out in filmi-filmi Bollywood sunglasses and a stylish scarf, forked over a throbbing motorcycle—all I could ask for as an on-site enforcer. He took my money and promised there’d be no problems: he had friends. Rina, Gautam, and Rina’s mother deserved to share the pokey company flat bordering a paddy field on the outskirts of Cossipore.
           Sonali wailed, she broke down in tears, sobbing. “New Athens, New Athens!” she cried. “My Agora, my Agora! All my dreams, all my training!” What had I been thinking? And the answer was, amazingly, she was right: I hadn’t thought about her or the school at all.
           “You don’t care about me. You’re always complaining about our boys’ education, you think I’m lazy, you only care about your goddamn family in goddamn Calcutta—”
           “I should return home,” said Chhoto kaku.
           “Oh, no,” she cried. “I should return home! And I’m going to!”
           She stood at the base of the stairway—I could rhapsodize over the marble, the recessed lighting under the handrail, the paintings and photographs lining the stairwell, but that is from a lifetime ago. And her beauty—I am easily inflamed, I admit it, and I will never see a more beautiful woman than Sonali, even as she threw plates at my head. “Boys! Pramod, Vikram! Pack your bags immediately. We’re leaving for San Diego!”

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